There are 10 minutes before rehearsal starts when the cast of Key City Public Theater’s upcoming production, “Men On Boats,” begins doing the hokey pokey on stage.
Because they are actors, even when doing the hokey pokey, they project. It’s loud, rambunctious, and apparently part of their warm-up routine.
“This is an ensemble,” said Genevieve Barlow, the play’s director. “It’s not any one person’s show. It’s a show of these men who went down the river together.”
The play, which tells the story of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition to chart the Colorado and Green Rivers through the Grand Canyon, is full of synchronized rhythmic movement, which the actors prepare for by doing things together, like the hokey pokey.
In the play, Powell’s band of hearty explorers crash through the whitewater of the rivers, catch fish for their dinner, and occasionally get into macho one-up-manship.
But here’s the catch: All of the men in the play are portrayed by women.
Having an all-female cast isn’t differing from the playwright’s original intent. Key City Public Theater artistic director Denise Winter chose “Men On Boats” to open their 2019 season because of playwright Jaclyn Backhaus’ unique instructions to cast all women to play the characters.
“The script compelled me from the first pages,” Winter stated in a press release. “Traditionally a large-cast show opens the season and in balance with the numerous plumb roles for men in Shakespeare each year, it was exciting to find material with equally juicy roles for a cast of ten women.”
For 24-year-old Barlow, who is an artistic apprentice at Key City, it is her first time directing such a large cast. She directed Krapp’s Last Tape in late fall along with Love Bites Dinner Theater and several one-act scripts in this year’s Playfest 23.
Directing these women to play men adds to the fun, Barlow said.
“It brings a different lens onto a traditionally male narrative,” she said.
But though the cast jokes about “practicing their manspreading” during rehearsal, Barlow is certain the play, while occasionally poking fun, does not mock men. Instead it challenges the audience and the actors to see gender as something a bit more fluid.
Barlow uses the analogy of the well-known “rabbit or duck” illusion. Psychologists use the drawing to test different types of brains. When you see the drawing, do you see the rabbit or the duck? Or do you see both? Do you switch from one to the other?
In a similar way, when you see the actors in “Men On Boats,” do you see women or do you see men? Both? Are some of their actions more stereotypically male? And what does that even mean?
It’s akin to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s decision to cast actors of color to play the mostly-white Founding Fathers in “Hamilton.” By overlaying a modern sensibility, Miranda has said, he connects the audience to historical events and provokes discussion about what it means to be American.
Key City Public Theater took it one step further and hired an entirely female production crew to put the show on as well.
The actors in the play are also stage-hands, moving their boats, moving the canyon scenery. There is the element of illusion that comes with any acting, but the technical aspects of the production are also part of the play.
“That’s why the actors don’t need to wear beards, or look too much like men,” Burlow said. It’s more about the audience’s perception, than about trickery.
In the midst of chaotic rehearsals and preparations, (“Are we missing fish?? Check your bags for fish everyone!”) Barlow showcases her directorial skills, working with the ten-women cast to perfect their comedic timing, their facial expressions and development of their characters.
Many of the cast are her friends and actors she has worked with on recent shows, while some are legends of Key City Public Theater.
“I love the youthful energy of the cast,” said Erin Lamb, who first started acting with Key City in 1995 and is returning to play “Old Shady” in “Men On Boats.” “There is a joyful alchemy that happens when you have a mix of all ages.”
And though they have fun during their rehearsals, they can all agree on one thing: working with an all-female cast and crew is a breath of fresh air.
“I’ll put it this way,” said production manager Britni Alleman. “Us girls get things done better and quicker.”
“Men On Boats” will open Key City Public Theater’s 2019 season, with a premier show on April 11 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and info are available at keycitypublictheater.org.